PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Whether it’s a crime of opportunity or a ruthless robbery, it’s a growing problem that’s plaguing Peoria, shocking the state of Illinois, and a nuisance to the nation.

The number of teens stealing cars is on the rise. Many are doing so empty handed, others are doing so guns drawn in the form of carjacking.

In a list from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Illinois ranked 5th in vehicle thefts by state. There were nearly 21,000 thefts reported in the first half of 2023, which was a 38% increase from 2022.

Over the years in WMBD’s search for solutions, we’ve spoken with police, city leaders, and community activists. However, there’s an understanding that the ones who may have better insight, are the teens doing the acts.

For the first time, in an attempt to gain further understanding into the problem, Darronté Matthews received a parent’s permission of a teenager involved in the crimes to talk about it.

A 15-year year old girl, under the name “Kayla.” She told, from her experience, the why, the how, and if anything can be done to stop the trend.

Kayla’s Why:

Darronté: “What do you remember the reason being for the first time you stole a car?”

Kayla: “I don’t know, we were walking. Got tired of walking and then we just took it (laughs). I don’t know how to explain it.”

Darronté: “So, you and a group of friends were tired of walking and said ‘let’s just take a car?”

Kayla: “Mmm-hmm.”

Darronté: “Most people would say “I’m tired of walking, let me take an Uber or a bus.” What made you guys take that big step and go straight to stealing a car?

Kayla: “We don’t have money for an Uber or a bus, so there’s a car. And it’s the only way for us to actually be able to drive it.”

Darronté: What made you want to take a car?

Kayla: “To be in them and for memories and just to be in them. I don’t know, there’s no reason for taking a car.”

Darronté: “Did you ever think that taking a car is wrong, it’s not the right thing to do?”

Kayla: “I mean it’s wrong, but nobody cares in the moment.”

Kayla said she’s been involved and arrested for at least four car thefts since 2022, not including stealing her own mother’s car for a joy ride.

She said she hasn’t done it since her latest arrest and said she’s only ever been a passenger in the stolen cars, never in the driver seat.

First Time:

Darronté: “How did you feel when you did it for the first time?”

Kayla: “Anxious, scared, but good because I was in a car. You get paranoid when you see car lights, but if you’re with people that you like hanging around with it’s fun. All together, it’s fun until you get caught.”

Kayla said she would only go along with stealing cars when she’s with friends, never when she’s alone. This includes in a previous carjacking, that left an older woman assaulted and injured.

Kayla said teens often learn how to steal cars from videos on YouTube and TikTok.

The Victims:

Darronté: “Do you ever think about the people who are hurt in these incidents?”

Kayla: “Uh-uh. It’s technically not my responsibility. You got a KIA, not me. I’m not saying that I don’t have remorse for stealing their cars, but at the same time, I don’t know what to do about it, it’s just a thought that I have and it gets done.”

Darronté: So, even if you feel bad about it, you’d still do it again?

Kayla: “I’m not going to say I’d do it again, because I don’t want to go to jail again. But yeah, if I want it, I’m going to get it.”

Peoria Stats:

According to Peoria Police Department data, there were 736 motor vehicle thefts in 2022 with 40 resulting in juveniles arrested. As of Oct. 1, 2023, there were 905 motor vehicle thefts and 53 landed juveniles behind bars.

The city’s three biggest hotspots for car thefts seem to be the East Bluff, followed by South Peoria and the West Bluff.

Kayla’s mom, Nikki’s, reaction:

Nikki: “It’s infuriating, it’s embarrassing actually. It’s disgusting to see your kids disrespecting you.”

Kayla’s mom, under the name Nikki, called her daughter’s behavior disappointing.

She said Kayla’s younger years in Illinois Department of Children and Family Services played a big role in her behavior. She also said her kids have been a little deprived of knowing what it means to have ones own vehicle and ones own job.

Nikki: “My kids grew up in DCFS for maybe about 7 years before I got them out and so there was a little friction with me being a parent and being their friend at this time and I have to make up for everything that happened in the past.”

She also shined a light on outside influences, saying peer pressure and lenient consequences can play a role in these crimes.

Nikki: “If they [teens] don’t have enough points to go into juvie, oh they’ll [police will] leave them out here, so you’re getting away with it scot-free. They’re going to take you home to your parents.”

Nikki also said short stays in the county’s juvenile detention center don’t always work to deter teens from committing these offenses.

Nikki: “I once said ‘they’ve been in there 15 days, they have not learned their lesson, I’m not coming to get them.’ Well, ‘we’re going to call DCFS on you and you’re going to get the charge for neglect if you don’t come get them’.”

What are we to do?

Darronté: “A lot of people would say ‘the parents need to do more.’ What exactly are you doing or have you done to stop this behavior?”

Nikki: “What are we to do? We can’t touch them, we barely can say anything to them or DCFS is threatened into our lives, they come in and take everything. What can I possibly do? If you take their phone, oh, you have another problem on your hands, they’re going to fight you over that phone. So you can’t take the phone, you can’t put them in the corner anymore, what discipline is there left? If I touch my kids, oh I’m going straight to jail. Been there, done that, I’m not touching no more kids. So what else you got to do? They’re not running me and my household. And if you kick them out, you’re going to jail again that’s neglect. So, can you give me some options?”

Nikki said she feels stuck when it comes to finding solutions to deal with the issue. However, she said by taking away her daughter’s luxuries, cutting off the internet and refusing to buy her favorite snacks, she has seen a little progress.

What can be done legally:

Over the years, some have alleged the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s Office isn’t doing enough to prosecute and punish teen offenders, especially repeat offenders.

State’s Attorney Jodi Hoos said that’s not the case.

“The Peoria Police Department and even the Sheriff’s Department, they’re doing their job, they’re apprehending these people and hopefully getting the cars back, she said. “My office is prosecuting these people. The court system, they’re holding them accountable as well. We seek punishments that we can under the law.

“Unfortunately the juvenile court system was created during a different time,” she said.

Hoos said the juvenile court system is an expedited process with the goal of rehabilitation and not punishment.

“That’s just the way it was designed at its inception, the goal was to rehabilitate these kids, so they can become productive members of society, it’s not to punish them,” Hoos said. “So when an individual goes in there with the expedited case, it may seem that they got out of there very quickly, but their case may already be resolved, maybe they were put on probation, maybe they were sentenced to that time.”

She said more violent and extreme crimes resulting in damage to one’s person, like carjacking, assault, and murder, are exceptions to the restorative process. But not usually damage to property such as car thefts.

“Usually, unlawful possession of a stolen motor vehicle is a crime that’s going to score enough points to go in there [Juvenile Detention Center], but that’s not a system we created, it’s not a system that the Peoria Police Department created, that’s a state-wide system that’s ran by the Administrative office of the Illinois Courts,” Hoos said. “It’s not a perfect system, and I agree but at the end of the day, we have to follow the law and we can only do so much under the type of offense that the juvenile has committed.”

What Can Be Done Now?

When it comes to teens stealing cars, one of the biggest questions asked apart from “why is this happening?” is “what can actually stop it?”

Darronté: What would make you stop?

Kayla: “Nothing can stop any kid from doing what they want to do. I mean, nobody’s going to stop taking cars and even if you try to put a lock on a car they’re still going to find a way.”

Darronté: Some people would suggest getting kids into programs to occupy their time, or mentors to talk to kids about not doing the wrong thing. Do you think that’s helpful?”

Kayla: “No, a program is no different than jail, a program is you sitting there talking and I’m not listening.”

Darronté: If teens and juveniles had stricter punishments, do you think that would stop them?

Kayla: “Yeah.”

Kayla’s mom, Nikki, has an opposite opinion and believe there is hope to stop the negative trend. She suggested boot camps.

“You remember the boot camps?” Nikki asked. “Where you used to have to put in hard work and you wouldn’t think to come back there no more when you had to lift those big lumbers, but you were also learning a trade at the same time. You learned something at boot camp as well as being locked up.”

She also mentioned mentorships and therapy sessions as options.

“Finding some rec centers where they can all go just be with the mentors and be with kids their age and discuss this type of stuff, instead of them pulling it all in and keeping it to themselves because they can’t tell their peers,” Nikki said. “They somebody who they can talk to and will not go and tell others what’s going on.”

It’s a case by case basis:

“It’s a case by case basis,” Antwaun Banks, founder and CEO of Product of the Project, said. “There are some kids who go to jail and never do it again, which is the opposite point of view of the young lady [Kayla]. There are some parents who have stricter or different rules and they make that happen.”

Product of the Project, or POP, is an organization aiming to invest in inner city youth and transform their lives through mentoring, counseling, and coaching.

Banks said many teens have a distorted version of reality brought on media.

“A lot of these kids in their subconscious are moved by videos games, music and they don’t equate that with real life. Video games have pause and rewind buttons, life don’t,” he said. “You have to try to strike into their psyche and also the magnitude of what they’re doing.”

Banks said suggested exposing teens to the reality of life, by showing them positive representations of themselves. This could be showing or having them speak with successful people their age, people who look like them, or people came from the same background.

He also said showing teens the negative consequences of their outcomes, such as those in jail for committing the same crimes, could help put them on the right track.

Banks said there are many resources and organizations in the community to, if not solve the problem, at the very least help out alleviate it. But it will take time to fix a problem he said the previous generation also had a hand in creating.

“I think there are programs and there are things that the police department and the community are trying to do, but this wasn’t a problem that was built over night,” Banks said. “I think things are in place to make things better, I just think that we want instant gratification for some things and I think the work needs to continue and as the needle move forward will see some change.”